Town continue to climb

IPSWICH Town are rising stealthily up the table after eight league matches without defeat, writes Tony Garnett.Confidence is rising at Portman Road with 18 points from a possible 24 since early December.

IPSWICH Town are rising stealthily up the table after eight league matches without defeat, writes Tony Garnett.

Confidence is rising at Portman Road with 18 points from a possible 24 since early December.

A decimated Preston team was there for the taking on Saturday. It was an ideal time to play such threadbare opposition. Ipswich had only to guard against complacency.

The outcome was a rather dull cat-and-mouse contest on a sticky pitch that was little help to Town's passing game.

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Ipswich plugged away at a well-organised Preston defence intent on damage limitation. Pablo Counago made life difficult for the visitors but it took Ipswich half an hour to break through.

Eric Skora fouled the tricky Counago just outside the penalty area on the left. Preston claimed it was a 50-50 challenge but the referee thought otherwise and Ipswich cashed in.

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Jim Magilton, after being told to move the ball a couple of yards further away from the edge of the penalty area than he had originally placed it, whipped a high free-kick with pace into the six-yard box. It should surely have been Jonathan Gould's ball but the debut-making goalkeeper was well beaten by a terrific leap from Marcus Bent who headed home.

Afterwards Preston's quietly-spoken manager Craig Brown blamed his defenders for allowing Bent a free header but it looked more like goalkeeper error.

Ipswich went though their customary nervous spell just after the interval but Thomas Gaardsoe rescued them with a crucial block to deny Pawel Abbott after Colin Murdock had knocked a cross from Lee Cartwright into the danger zone.

A one-goal advantage never looked enough. In the 65th minute Fabian Wilnis, who gave another highly impressive performance, rose to nod clear another dangerous cross from Cartwright.

Magilton, worried by a calf strain, was able to weave a certain amount of midfield magic but Town boss Joe Royle made his first change in the 68th minute when he replaced the popular Counago with the speedy Darren Bent.

If fans were in two minds about the wisdom of the switch, they soon realised that Bent's pace was going to cause nightmares for the weary Preston defenders. It was a new challenge for them, one to which they had little answer.

Five minutes later Royle replaced Magilton with Darren Ambrose whose very first touch of the ball turned out to be a golden one.

Ipswich had won a corner on the left when a shot from Hermann Hreidarsson was deflected. This followed an attempted overhead kick by Marcus Bent.

Ambrose took the flag-kick. Hreidarsson flicked the ball on at the near post and Darren Bent was at the far post to finish off

It looked a good header from the Press Box although Preston claimed that a hand was involved – it looked as though they were clutching at straws.

How many times has the appearance of Ambrose given Ipswich an immediate boost? The contribution of the teenage Darrens, almost telepathic, was by no means over.

In the 86th minute Ambrose spotted a gap in the Preston back-line but it needed a 30-yard pass of deadly accuracy to send Darren Bent sprinting through the middle to score.

Darren Bent's finishing on Saturday was in marked contrast to his wayward efforts at Burnley the previous weekend when he could hardly hit a barn door. Young Bent has a natural talent. Royle predicts a big future.

The Preston manager felt Ipswich were flattered by the scoreline. In fact Preston should never have been at the races with the side they were able to field. In the circumstances they did as well as could be expected.

As a mental exercise try to pick an Ipswich team from a squad with five players suspended and four others on the injury list. A good result would be highly improbable away to one of the in-form sides in the division.

Ipswich started the season as under-achievers. It's not unusual for a club relegated from the Premiership to take until October to find their feet at the lower level where football tends to be more frenetic and more physical.

Royle is looking for results and, thankfully, achieving them. An immediate return to the Premiership can end Ipswich Town's need for drastic cost-cutting at a stroke.

Royle seems to have found the formula even though it means that the club's most exciting players – Ambrose and Martijn Reuser – cannot be automatic choices in his starting line-up.

Ambrose has shown time and again what he can do. Indeed it would be no surprise if he achieved the double as player of the year as well as young player of the year. He has the flair to win matches as he showed once again on Saturday.

Reuser has earned a deserved reputation as a huge favourite with the fans but has yet to prove himself to Royle. He is a potential trump card yet to be played.

There were three bookings. Wilnis was shown the yellow card for the third time this season for a foul on United States World Cup player Eddie Lewis after a misplaced header from Gaardsoe led to the pressure.

Murdock, booked for a first-half foul on Marcus Bent, was later fortunate to escape a second booking for dissent when he questioned a decision made by an assistant when he had joined his attack. A long lecture from the referee sufficed.

The third yellow card for Simon Lynch could be attributed to over-enthusiasm on his debut after being introduced as substitute for Abbott.

Ipswich are closing in on play-off hopefuls like Norwich City, Nottingham Forest, Coventry City and Wolves.

Town are on the march and can look forward with optimism to the final months of the campaign.

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